Five years ago Chris Goodall observed that Britain’s materials use was falling. Had we reached ‘peak stuff’, he wondered. As economies develop they reach a saturation point. We need vast quantities of steel and concrete as infrastructure is built, but then demand tails off – possibly. The downward dip in Britain’s consumption of materials was too early to indicate a trend, but it was an intriguing thought.
Then last year James Wallman argued in his book Stuffocation that a new cultural trend is gradually taking hold, away from consumerism and towards experientialism – where we signal our status through experiences rather than possessions. Ultimately, we have enough stuff. Our houses are full, and sharing our experiences on social media is becoming a better way to show off, basically.
It would be nice to think that this was true, and the idea may have taken a step forward this week when Steve Howard, Ikea’s head of sustainability, conceded that people don’t need much more stuff from Ikea. “If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings.”
As the Guardian pointed out, that could be seen as a business faux pas, downplaying your own prospects. But Ikea are a pretty smart company on the sustainability front and they’ll have given it some thought. They’ll want to be thinking through their business model in the light of these trends in material consumption. “We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products,” says Howard, and that will be interesting to see.
If consumption is indeed peaking, that’s welcome news. But it does need to peak – ie top out and then fall. It won’t be enough to level off and plateau at our current rate of natural resource consumtion. At current levels, there aren’t enough natural resources in the world for all seven billion of us to shop at Ikea.